A former colleague recently decided to leave a large healthcare provider after 25 years. She had risen to the rank of chief operating officer of the company’s largest division and posted the most profitable results of the company over the last four years. But having grown tired of the punishingly politicized environment that had developed under the new CEO, in which chiefs of other divisions fought to undercut her success, she was eager for a fresh intellectual and professional challenge.
Her decision startled people in her organization, many of whom she had mentored and knew well. When I did some work in the company, I always heard people speak of her with a respect and warmth that bordered on awe. She informed her direct boss, who sent out word of her imminent departure, then she sent a personal note to her colleagues across the firm.
The response was underwhelming. A few called immediately to express their surprise and regret and to wish her well. But “everyone else just kept their heads down,” she reported. “It was so strange — people I’d spent time with, relied on, promoted, and supported never responded.” Why? She wondered if she’d been naïve in thinking her relationships with people transcended their work. Or if colleagues felt betrayed by her decision. “Or maybe,” she suggested, “the culture had grown so fearful under the new CEO that people thought reaching out would be looked on as disloyal.”
I’ve witnessed similar situations over the years. An editor who acquired an early book of mine was plucked from obscurity by her firm’s editor-in-chief and given a high-profile imprint that made her reputation and career. Yet when the editor-in-chief lost her job as part of a company-wide shakeup, she heard nothing from her protégé: no note, no call, no message. At the time this struck me as not only cold but shortsighted. As the old adage goes: Be nice to people on the way up because you'll meet the same people on the way down.
Behaving as if a colleague who has just left your company suddenly doesn’t exist also seems unprofessional. And so I thought it would make sense to ask Bill Wiersma, whose book The Power of Professionalism: The Seven Mindsets that Drive Performance and Build Trust provides a primer on what constitutes professional behavior in the workplace, for advice on how to handle an inherently awkward, and often painful, situation.
“I think our workplace culture has become so very informal that people get accustomed to neglecting the basic niceties that grease the wheels in institutions and keep relationships running smoothly,” Wiersma told me in an interview. “Thank-you notes are a good example. It used to be when you didn’t receive a thank-you from someone, you assumed to say something about his or her character. Today, when you do get one, you’re impressed.”
This pervasive casualness, he notes, bleeds over into other behavior. “If you’re out of the habit of responding or congratulating or expressing condolences or regret, you don’t know what to say,” he said. “And that becomes an excuse to say nothing.”
In the case of departing colleagues, Wiersma believes this negligence gets mixed with a tendency in the general culture to interpret events through the lens of their impact on us. “Especially when someone who’s well-liked or even revered leaves, those left behind may assume –– often based on a realistic assessment –– their new boss is going to be a dud and their world is automatically going to get worse,” he said. Maybe the person leaving was the lifeboat in a sea of stupidity and incompetence, “so it’s not surprising if those who remain feel abandoned.”
Responding to a resignation with silence may be understandable and is certainly very human. But it is unprofessional nevertheless. The sixth mindset in Wiersma’s schema of professional behavior is the ability to “master your emotions” rather than letting your subjective response shape your actions. “Professionals discipline their thoughts and feelings,” he said. “Even if you expect a negative impact for yourself, you look at the larger picture and recognize that when someone leaves, it’s about that person. It’s either a time of promise for them or a difficult time. But it’s not really about you.”
Not surprisingly, he adds, those who are most successful are often most likely to respond to a colleague’s departure in a generous and thoughtful manner. “Skill and empathy characterize the best leaders,” he observed, which is why the busiest people are often most likely to take time to observe the niceties being lost.
This correlation undercuts the excuse that people often tell themselves for failing to respond appropriately to a colleague’s departure. The punishingly intense 24/7 work world in which most of us are expected to function offers a ready-made excuse for all kinds of thoughtlessness. We tell ourselves we are only being productive –– “I meant to call, but I had to get out the quarterly report” –– but recent studies tell a different story. According to Christine Porath, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, the decline in civil behavior is actually making the workplace less productive.
People simply don’t respond well to colleagues who fail to demonstrate thoughtfulness and respect.
Not surprisingly, Porath finds that incivility undermines focus, diminishes peoples’ ability to be creative, and results both in more frequent errors and in essential information being withheld. People simply don’t respond well to colleagues who fail to demonstrate thoughtfulness and respect, who can’t get out of their own way and think about others. Bill Wiersma’s research also demonstrates a correlation between professionalism and high performance.
So the message is clear. When a colleague tells you he or she is leaving, don’t respond with silence. Proactively responding provides an opportunity to demonstrate professionalism. It sends a message about your character. It provides an opportunity to push back against the habit of instinctively focusing on the question, “What about me?” It offers a path toward greater peace of mind. And finally, it’s just good manners. None of us wants to find ourselves dodging someone because we failed offer thanks or congratulations when presented with the perfect occasion to do so.